Environmentalists Say UN Sustainability Pact Lacks Teeth

50,000 Descend Upon Rio De Janeiro For Rio+20 Earth Summit
Indigenous men walk past Brazilian National Guard soldiers at the Kari-Oca village constructed by indigenous peoples as a counter point to the Rio+20 conference on June 19, 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images

United Nations envoys endorsed the broadest steps yet to harmonize economic development with efforts to protect the environment, measures that pressure groups say lack the teeth needed to force change.

Delegates from 190 nations put the finishing touches on a draft agreement early this morning that addresses cuts in fossil-fuel subsidies, provides support for renewable energy and details measures to protect oceans, according to diplomats and Brazil Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro.

Environmental groups from WWF to Greenpeace International condemned the text, saying the diplomats caved in to pressure from business groups to water down the text. They called on world leaders to firm up language in the agreement before they formally adopt it when the meeting closes on June 22.

“We will now only be presented with a polluter’s charter that will cook the planet, empty the oceans and wreck the rain forests,” said Daniel Mittler, political director for Greenpeace International.

The discussions cap more than a year of work to mark the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Summit, where the UN started talks to halt global warming and safeguard the diversity of plants and animals.

The Rio+20 meeting involves 50,000 government officials, company executives and research analysts and is aimed at setting an agenda for policy makers to follow in the coming decades. It will have no force as a treaty.

Conference Sprawl

Participants are spread across Rio in hotels and at an airport-sized convention center in the west of the city, discussing subjects from corporate sustainability reporting to the protection the oceans and ensuring arsenic from mines doesn’t contaminate drinking water.

“The text is a nice signal, but you could drive a truck through all the loopholes,” said Jake Schmidt, director of international climate policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental group. “All of the tangible outcomes were weakened or removed.”

Delegates to the Rio talks said involving business was a priority and the draft text, entitled “The Future We Want,” is a road map setting out how industry and policy makers should act in the coming years.

Celebrity executives, including Richard Branson of Virgin Group Ltd., joined government officials, scientists and activists in expressing concern about the health of the planet at the talks this week. Tomorrow, leaders including French President Francois Hollande and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon will attend.

‘Universal Sewer’

“We’re using the ocean as a universal sewer, and that’s true wherever you live,” Jean-Michel Cousteau, 74, the eldest son of the French ocean explorer Jacques, said on a panel discussion at the conference today. “We are putting a lot of pressure on the planet. It’s not getting any better.”

The text pledges negotiations toward a new set of “sustainable development” goals, though just what those targets would entail is being left for future meetings.

“This is a first step, not a long step,” said Quamrul Chowdhury, an envoy from Bangladesh who negotiates on finance for the G77 group of developing countries. “The whole document emphasizes business commitments. It opens up a window for cooperation between the public sector and the private. It’s not the classic notion the public sector can do it all alone.”

Middle Ground

The accord represents an effort to chart the middle ground between countries such as the European Union’s 27 members, which want to push a “green economy” that includes renewable power and energy-efficiency measures, and poorer nations whose priority is lifting people out of poverty rather than pursuing expensive clean technologies.

“If you look at Rio being successful as dependent on a big new agreement coming out, we are not going to have any success coming out of Rio,” said Dawn Rittenhouse, director of sustainable development at DuPont Co. “Look at it as a way to energize organizations. People are making commitments. They are talking about the commitments. Hopefully the governments will follow.”

Friends of the Earth International, another environmental group, said the UN process has been taken over by big business, which has diverted the traditional priorities of standing up for the poor and protecting the Earth.

“Governmental positions have been increasingly hijacked by narrow corporate interests linked to polluting industries,” said Nnimmo Bassey, chairman of Friends of the Earth. “The UN is increasingly catering to the demands of corporate interests.”

Delegates inserted “toothless language” into their agreement that will do little to roll back carbon dioxide emissions or protect the oceans from toxic waste, said Jim Leape, director general of the WWF environmental group.

“The text has lots of words that ‘commit’ parties to nothing -- such as ‘commit to promote’ and ‘commit to systematically consider,’” Leape said. “Diplomats in Rio are letting the world down.”

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